Saturday, 2 April 2011

A critical introduction to the gospels - Part 1 (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

The four canonical gospels of the New Testament are divided into two distinct groups: Matthew, Mark and Luke on the one hand (the ‘synoptic’ gospels) and John on the other.

Most New Testament scholars agree that Mark is the earliest of the gospels.  Its only real competitor in this regard is Matthew, which was traditionally regarded by Christian scholars as earlier.  Matthew and Mark share a large amount of material, and the question is whether (1) Matthew incorporated Mark into his longer gospel, or (2) Mark amounts to a shorter, abridged version of Matthew.  The former possibility is more plausible for three main reasons: Matthew seems to correct some anomalies in Mark's language and theology (it is less plausible that Mark inserted those anomalies if he had a copy of Matthew before him); Mark does not include some of the most memorable material in Matthew, such as the Sermon on the Mount; and Mark's rendition of Jesus' prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem seems to be earlier than Matthew's.

It is generally believed that Mark and a lost document known as Q were the first full-length texts relating to the ministry of Jesus to be produced by the early Christian community.  Q is believed to be the document that underlies the shared material which is found in both Matthew and Luke.  A Passion Narrative telling of Jesus’ arrest, sufferings, death and resurrection also seems to have been written at some point before Mark and partially incorporated into that gospel.  A few years after Mark and Q had entered circulation, the authors of Matthew and Luke drew upon them and upon oral traditions known to them to create their own gospels.

Though some parts of it echo passages in the synoptic gospels, John essentially has its own separate history and was based upon a distinct set of sources. I intend to treat it separately, in my next post.


Extreme caution is called for when discussing a lost document.  Indeed, there are valid reasons for thinking that Q never existed, although most modern scholars have concluded that it probably did.

It would seem that Q was a fundamentally Jewish text which bore witness to tension between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and other members of the Jewish religious community.  This may indicate that it was composed in the Jewish heartland of Palestine.  Such a deduction would be consistent with the fact that the wording in Greek of the surviving passages of Q seems to preserve features of the Aramaic language, which was the language commonly spoken in Palestine.  Q seems, incidentally, to have consisted almost entirely of sayings of Jesus rather than narrative.

Q cannot be shown to have known of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Beyond that, it is difficult to know precisely when to date it.

It has been suggested that Matthew came to be ascribed to St Matthew the apostle because Q was based on the apostle’s memories of Jesus’ ministry.  This theory would explain the famous claim of the early Christian writer Papias (120/130 AD) that St Matthew ‘composed the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language’ (by which he probably meant Aramaic).


Mark was probably written by a Latin-speaking Jew in Rome around 70 AD.  He was probably called Mark (Marcus in Latin), and he was writing for a mixed Jewish/Gentile community.

How do we know where the gospel was written?
  • Mark incorporates several Latin words into his text, including terms which were in use only in the western part of the Roman Empire.  His grammar may also indicate that Latin was his first language.  His Greek is not particularly good.
  • Rome was the only major Christian centre in the western half of the Empire at this time.
  • The importance of Rome as an early Christian centre makes it inherently plausible that at least one gospel was composed there.
  • The early Christian writer Papias (120/130 AD) quotes earlier reports linking Mark with the apostle St Peter, who was in turn closely associated with Rome. 
How do we know when the gospel was written?
  • The predictions about the fate of Jerusalem in Mark 13 are consistent with a date between the start of the Romans' campaign against the Jews (66) and some point shortly after the fall of the city (70).  Mark clearly knew that Jerusalem had been or was shortly going to be destroyed, but it is less clear that he yet knew exactly how this would happen.  He seems to have expected the end of the world to follow not long afterwards.
  • Mark’s memory of past persecutions is vivid (13.9ff), but he makes no explicit reference to persecution being an ongoing problem.  This suggests that he was writing in the period following the Emperor Nero’s savage persecutions of the mid-60s 
How do we know what the author’s name was?

Mark (Marcus) was a common Roman name, but there were no Marks in Jesus’ inner circle.  If Mark was not in fact the work of a Mark/Marcus, there would have been no very strong reason to claim that it was (contrast the ascriptions of Matthew, John and several apocryphal gospels to close associates of Jesus).  On the other hand, there is a minor character in the NT called John Mark, and it is possible that the gospel was falsely ascribed to him.

How do we know what the author’s background was?

Mark quotes from the Jewish scriptures and uses Semitic words like ‘hosanna’, ‘rabbi’, ‘Beelzebul’ and ‘Gehenna’. It has been suggested that his knowledge of Judaism was imperfect, but this may be disputed.

How do we know for whom the gospel was written?
  • Mark has to explain basic Jewish customs to his audience (7.3f).
  • He also translates the Semitic terms that he uses.
Other comments

Luke did not use the material contained in Mk. 6.45-8.26 when composing his own gospel.  This may indicate that the sections in question were part of a ‘second edition’ composed after Luke, but this is just a conjecture.  Luke may simply have chosen to omit the material in question: his gospel is already the longest of the four, and he had plenty of other data to work with.  Mark might also have altered the way in which he presented his material in chapter 13 if he had revised his work some time after the fall of Jerusalem.


Matthew was probably written in Antioch in the 70s or 80s.  Its author was a Jewish Christian addressing an audience composed largely, but not exclusively, of other Jewish Christians.

How do we know where the gospel was written?
  • As noted below, Matthew is indisputably Jewish, yet its tolerance towards Gentiles and the fact that it is written in reasonably good Greek point to a cosmopolitan community outside Palestine, somewhere in the eastern Roman Empire.  Antioch, as a major eastern city with a large and mixed population, has been judged to be the obvious candidate.
  • St Peter the Apostle, who was associated with the city of Antioch, plays an important role in the gospel.  Antioch was also the scene of a major clash between St Peter and St Paul over how far Christians were bound to observe the Jewish law.  As noted below, this issue is a matter of concern for Matthew, who broadly sides with Peter.
  • The first early Christian writers to quote from the gospel are Ignatius of Antioch and the author of the Didache, who was probably also from Antioch.
How do we know when the gospel was written?
  • Matthew 24 copies the eschatological discourse in Mark 13, which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (see also 22.7, 23.38).  Yet the author still believes that the second coming of Christ will arrive not long after this event.
  • On the other hand, additions which Matthew makes to Markan material indicate that the second coming was taking longer than anticipated.  He also lays emphasis upon the abiding presence of Christ with the church.
  • Matthew may have been inspired by Mark, on whom he draws very heavily, to write his own gospel. This is consistent with a dating in the early 70s.
How do we know what the author’s background was?
  • Matthew was very familiar with and often refers to the Jewish scriptures.
  • He also knew Hebrew.
  • He seems to have had a moderately conservative attitude towards the Jewish law.
How do we know for whom the gospel was written?
  • Unlike Mark, Matthew makes no attempt to explain Jewish customs to his readers.
  • On the other hand, despite his conservatism, his vision of Christianity is not narrowly Jewish, and he is sensitive to the importance of winning over the Gentiles.


Luke was written in the eastern Roman Empire in the 70s or 80s.  The author was an educated Gentile who may have taken an interest in Judaism before his conversion to Jesus.

How do we know where the gospel was written?
  • Luke had clearly had a Greek-style education: his Greek is of a high standard, and he is familiar with Greek literature and rhetorical techniques.  This points, in general terms, to the eastern part of the Roman Empire: Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine or Egypt.
  • Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography and customs, and Egypt did not have a significant Christian presence in this period. This leaves us with Greece, Syria and Asia Minor.
  • Acts, the sequel to Luke, seems to have been written in a Gentile milieu (see esp. 28.28, the last words of St Paul).
  • It also provides evidence of a significant degree of acquaintance with the church at Antioch (in Syria).
  • Later tradition records that Luke was from Antioch and wrote his gospel in Greece.  Scholars are fairly evenly divided about the historical value of this tradition, which may be garbled or entirely false.
How do we know when the gospel was written?
  • Luke 21 repeats the Markan material about the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the end of the world (see also 13.35).  However, there are some hints that Luke did not expect the second coming to follow in the near future after the sack.  This tells against a date in the early 70s - although the lack of more substantial changes to the eschatological material may rule out a dating in the late 80s or thereafter.
  • Acts, the sequel to Luke, must predate the collection and ‘publication’ of Paul’s letters, as it neither quotes from nor shows any knowledge of them despite dealing extensively with Paul's ministry.  This would tell against a date later than the 80s.
  • The prologue to the gospel refers to recent biographies of Jesus: Luke may have been inspired by Mark and Matthew to compose his own gospel.  If Mark wrote around 70 and Matthew wrote in the years after 70, it may be implausible to posit that Luke did not take up his pen until the late 80s or later.
  • The positive image of the Romans in Acts suggests that some time has elapsed since the Neronian persecutions, and that the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian have not yet begun.  This may rule out datings at the start of the 70s and in the latter part of Domitian’s reign (81-96).
How do we know what the author’s background was?
  • Luke did not reproduce the Semitic vocabulary and material of purely Jewish interest that he found in his sources.  This may have been because they would not have been meaningful to his audience, but, given that other pieces of evidence tell us that his own background was profoundly Hellenic rather than Semitic, it seems more likely that he omitted the elements in question because he was a Gentile and they held no interest for him.
  • It cannot be shown that Luke even knew a Semitic language.
  • He may also have been ignorant of the details of the Passover ritual (he has Jesus bless the cup at the Last Supper after the meal has ended), and his mistake at Lk. 2.22 probably indicates that he had not grown up in a Jewish household.
  • On the other hand, Luke knew the Jewish scriptures reasonably well. This at least indicates an interest in Judaism, unless he had studied the Bible after his conversion to Jesus.

Technorati tags: Bible, Christianity, New Testament, religion